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Posted at 1:15 PM ET, 02/21/2011

Mideast uprisings aren't all cut from the same cloth

By Jennifer Rubin

From a distance we see that much of the Middle East is in turmoil. Certainly what started in Tunisia and migrated to Egypt -- popular uprisings against aging, undemocratic regimes -- is now in evidence from Yemen to Libya. But it is important to understand not only the general phenomenon but the distinctions among countries.

Libya is aflame. As the Post reports:

Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi's regime showed more signs of crumbling Monday following a volatile night in which dozens were reportedly killed in the capital and Gaddafi's son and heir-apparent declared in a televised speech that the North African nation could fall into anarchy if his father was ousted.

By Monday morning, the six-day-old uprising had reached the capital, Tripoli, amid reports of buildings being set ablaze and looting in some neighborhoods. In Libya's second-largest city of Benghazi, anti-government demonstrators celebrated on the streets, as reports grew that the city was now under their control.

The brutality of the regime's crackdown and hundreds of deaths have prompted mournful expressions from the Obama administration. ("State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the United States is 'gravely concerned' and has received 'multiple credible reports that hundreds of people have been killed and injured.'") Our ability to influence events there is nil.

Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies e-mails me: "We have little to no leverage in Libya." He explains, "Everything was controlled by Qaddafi and his clique. The country could quickly become a failed state if it collapses." The ramifications could be quite serious, and not only because of Libya's oil production. Schanzer tells me that "the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an affiliate of al-Qaeda that has now seen dozens if not hundreds of cadres freed from jail in Benghazi," poses a threat to the entire region.

By contrast, we do hold some sway in Bahrain. As Schanzer tells me, a naval base, 6,000 U.S. troops and the Fifth Fleet, which is based there, give us substantial interests and influence. Yesterday the State Department put out this statement:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke by phone today to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. In discussing regional developments with her Saudi counterpart, the Secretary underscored the necessity of restraint by the security forces in Bahrain. She also noted that the United States has welcomed steps by Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa to initiate a meaningful dialogue with the full spectrum of Bahraini society. Secretary Clinton expressed hope that Bahrain's friends in the region and internationally will support this initiative as a constructive path to preserve Bahrain's stability and help meet the aspirations of all of Bahrain's people. The Secretary also indicated that the United States is encouraged by reports His Majesty King Abdullah will return soon to Saudi Arabia.

And we do see signs of restraint, as the New York Times reported over the weekend:

Thousands of jubilant protesters surged back into the symbolic heart of Bahrain on Saturday as the government withdrew its security forces, calling for calm after days of violent crackdowns.

It was a remarkable turn after a week of protests that had shifted by the hour between joy and fear, euphoric surges of people power followed by bloody military crackdowns, as the monarchy struggled to calibrate a response to an uprising whose counterparts have toppled other governments in the region.

If Libya is at one extreme (in terms of violence and the fragility of the regime), Morocco may be at the other. I spoke by phone this morning with Ed Gabriel, a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco and now an adviser to its government,. He was in Rabat and was present at the demonstrations. He described the protesters, numbering about 5,000 (there were 8,000 to 10,000 nationwide) as peaceful, calm and rather "festive."

In contrast to other Arab countries, the police presence was virtually nonexistent. Gabriel told me that although there may have been non-uniformed forces within the crowd, he "couldn't count ten uniformed policemen." The protesters filled up about three blocks. Moroccan flags were plentiful, but Gabriel spotted one Tunisian flag, one Palestinian banner and one for the Berber people. Individual groups marched behind banners. Gabriel says one of the groups directed its message against certain political groups and politicians. Another was obviously focused on complaints against the government, bearing messages about "freedom, democracy and jobs." Gabriel estimated there were about 1,000 Islamists within the protest. They held the most aggressively worded signs and the only one Gabriel saw directed at the King of Morocco -- "Dictator dégagé" (roughly, "dictator, clear out.") In contrast to Rabat, there were reports of violence in Tangiers,Tetouan, and Marrakesh, where rocks were thrown and a gas station and prefecture's office were set ablaze. There were no deaths in any of the 11 cities where demonstrations took place.

Gabriel reported that the streets in Rabat and elsewhere were devoid of protesters today, suggesting this may have been a one-day affair. Nevertheless, Gabriel sees the demonstrations as "a true expression of the needs of the people," with a focus on jobs, corruption and the desire for "a government that addresses the needs of the people." As of this writing, there was no official reaction from the king or his government, but Gabriel suggested that the government "will react favorably" and that the restraint exercised by the majority of the protesters gained them "a good listening audience." He told me that judicial reform (ensuring that judges are independent and well-trained and that corrupt judges are removed) would "get at so many problems."

So what is to be learned by all of this? Well, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the United States' reliance on autocratic regimes has largely been a failure and has left the United States with little influence and few friends in the region. Time will tell whether Morocco's experience is one more example of "Moroccan exceptionalism" in the Middle East (as evidenced by its family law reforms and protection for religious minorities) or whether it provides a model for more gradual reform and stability in the region.

UPDATE (2:00 p.m.): Recent news reports tell us there have been deaths in Morocco and the total number of protestors is higher than first reported. CNN reports: "Five charred bodies were found Monday in a Moroccan bank that burned down during protests the day before, Morocco's state-run news agency reported, citing the country's interior minister. The bodies were found in a bank in the town of Al Hoceima in northern Morocco, Interior Minister Taib Cherkaoui told reporters on Monday. He said the acts of vandalism followed the peaceful protests in at least six cities Sunday, according to Agence Maghreb Arabe Presse. He estimated that about 37,000 people participated in the protests nationwide."

By Jennifer Rubin  | February 21, 2011; 1:15 PM ET
Categories:  foreign policy  
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Libya is definitely the extreme and it looks like Qaddafi will go the way of Ceaucescu. Great news unless AQ or such takes over.

Iran is the second most repressive regime in the region, thoroughly hated by its subjects but protected by the Revolutionary guards and thugs from the countryside. For strategic reasons, we should do everything possible to help the Iranian people overthrow the dictator.

Egypt seems to be falling under the sway of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its "spiritual leader" al-Qaradawi triumphantly returned from exile to address a crowd of more than a million at Tahriri Square last Friday. He led them in chants calling for Muslims to martyr themselves by the millions to conquer Jerusalem. He was protected by the army. The silly little Google executive who started the pro-democracy demonstrations expected to speak but was barred from the stage and left in humiliation.

Each of these countries is different. We have much less influence than we tend to think, and there are no good guys of any consequence, except in Iran where the public is pro-American. The threat to American interests is not the teetering pro-American monarchs and autocrats that we have worked with for decades. It's the anti-American totalitarians who are likely to replace them.

Posted by: eoniii | February 21, 2011 1:38 PM | Report abuse

So, what if Lebanon's Hezbollah declares war on Libya, with Iran and Syria, to avenge Qaddafi's murder of Iranian-born cleric Musa Al-Sadr in the 1970's? (never underestimate the depth of THAT blood feud)

What would Egypt do, tempted by Libyan oil and gas?

Just hoping they all ignore Israel while they fight over Libya...a better place for a Sunni versus Shi'a WW4 than Bahrain...

Posted by: K2K2 | February 21, 2011 1:41 PM | Report abuse

I disagree with you Jennifer. The Middle East uprisings are all cut out from the "oppression, barbaric rulers, and poverty" cloth that has covered the Arab world like a suffocating canvas. That canvas burst its seams in Tunisia, and then other tears started to develop as masses in other Arab countries started to pull.

Libya's Gadhafi is the buffoon of the century, and he has become a subject of global intrigue and ridicule. He has welcomed foreign heads of states in desert tents, and he made official visits in other countries bringing along - and setting up, tent camps residence in foreign capitals for himself and his entourage, along with a herd of camels for the entire state visit! Foreign leaders have reluctantly accepted his antics due to diplomatic protocols, and because they had commercial interests in Libya tied to their economy. And as former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was grooming his son to take over upon the end of his tenure, so has Gadhafi prepared his son Saif Gadhafi to inherit the Libyan leadership after him - as if Libya were his private property! And Saif Gadhafi's answer to the Libyans uprising against his father's 42- year dictatorship was to go on the official Libyan TV, and tell Libyans that "the state -he and his father- will fight to the last drop of their blood, and to the last bullet, to stay in power," on quote. (Voice Of America, February 21, 2011) And that means, that the Gadhafi family is ready to slaughter thousands -and probably millions, of Libyans who are trying -and dying- to reclaim their land from the feudal ownership claimed by the Gadhafis.

I believe the U.S. should use the CIA to contact and support anti-Gadhafi elements to support the Libyan revolution. The CIA had contacts in 1980's and 90's with Abdel Salem Jaloud -Gadhafi's 2nd in command when they overthrew king Idris, and later Prime Minister, in efforts to undermine the Islamic Republic in Iran, and I believe the CIA still has useful contacts inside Libya able to help bring down the murderous Ghadafi regime.

Of course Gdadafi has wised up after the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein; scrapped his nuclear program; paid compensation to the U.S. Lockerbie bombing, and has cut his anti-American rhetoric. But should we be fooled by his calculated self-survival entreats to the U.S.? I think we shouldn't. Gadhafi has ruled Libyans as if they were medieval serfs for 42 years,
and now he is killing them with the same ease that Montana hunters shoot prairie dogs. And I feel that the U.S. has to do more than just expressing "concern" for the widespread bloodshed in Libya, and then do nothing! It is an aberration on our part! Nikos Retsos, retired professor

Posted by: Nikos_Retsos | February 21, 2011 2:37 PM | Report abuse

There goes that State Department being gravely concerned again. Well, it's better than deeply inappropriate, I guess.

Posted by: aardunza | February 21, 2011 3:49 PM | Report abuse

VP Biden mentioned to me the other day that Gadhafi always reminded him of Jack Nicholson for some reason.

Posted by: aardunza | February 21, 2011 4:01 PM | Report abuse

No, definitely a less attractive version of Ted Bundy, that's it. They'll do their own Groucho-Harpo Duck Soup mirror routine in Hades, for sure. Can't you see it?

Posted by: aardunza | February 21, 2011 4:10 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: eoniii | February 21, 2011 1:38 PM

Iran is the second most repressive regime in the region, thoroughly hated by its subjects

No, they are supported by the majority hence the election results.

"For strategic reasons, we should do everything possible to help the Iranian people overthrow the dictator."

Anything we do will play right into the hands of Iran's leaders.

"Egypt seems to be falling under the sway of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its "spiritual leader" al-Qaradawi triumphantly returned from exile to address a crowd of more than a million at Tahriri Square last Friday."

al-Qaradawi is not Khomeini. He has a small following. The crowd had gathered to celebrate the overthrow of Mubarak, not to listen to

"He led them in chants calling for Muslims to martyr themselves by the millions to conquer Jerusalem."

he had nothing to do with that chant, and the word they used was "liberate" not "conquer".

"The silly little Google executive who started the pro-democracy demonstrations expected to speak but was barred from the stage and left in humiliation."

Silly little Google executive who led the overthrow of a dictator. BTW, he was not barred from the stage.

"We have much less influence than we tend to think, and there are no good guys of any consequence, except in Iran where the public is pro-American."

The Iranians are pro Iranian.

Posted by: Shingo1 | February 21, 2011 5:56 PM | Report abuse

And to think that Bush held up Gaddafi as a trophy of pro Western democracy and reform.

I guess Bush was onto something after all.

Posted by: Shingo1 | February 21, 2011 6:01 PM | Report abuse

In Morocco the issue is between a certain group called "Justice and Charity" led by a very elderly man called Yassine who pretends that God has allotted him with some miracles such as predicting the end of world and other things. His Jamaa (roughly group) looks strangely like Hezboullah; it's a well-organized and disciplined organization, but it only lacks weapons.

Posted by: samuel-lary | February 25, 2011 12:43 PM | Report abuse

Believe it or not, all these [uprising/upheaval or unrest], that are taking place in most of the Arab world, are backed if not really planned by Islamists, especially the Shiites and the Muslim Brotherhood; they are sneaking in slowly, but surely till they have these countries under their dominance and then you won't be facing one Iran, but many Iran-like states.

Posted by: samuel-lary | February 25, 2011 1:07 PM | Report abuse

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